Michael Muzyk (from left), United Fresh chairman and president of Baldor Specialty Foods; Katie Fitzgerald, executive vice president and CEO of Feeding America; and Tom Stenzel, United Fresh president and CEO, kicked off the grand opening general session of United Fresh LIVE! ( Logo courtesy United Fresh Produce Association; graphic by Amelia Freidline )

Starting with a video tribute to the essential workers that bring fresh produce from the farm to the fork, the 2020 United Fresh LIVE! grand opening session was an industry first.

After the tribute, United Fresh president and CEO Tom Stenzel, speaking from the association’s office in Washington, D.C., alluded to the digital gathering.

“I know with all of our phone lines muted, you’re not going to hear 1,000 claps, but you will hear one for all of our essential workers,” Stenzel said, clapping. “Thank you so much for all you have done throughout this pandemic, and all you’re doing every day to feed the world.”

Stenzel thanked United Fresh LIVE! sponsors and said the event will offer attendees online resources all summer. The general session presentation and education sessions will be available for later viewing, he said.

“United Fresh LIVE! is open for business, but unlike trade shows that you’ve experienced in the past, it’s not for a few hours or a few days,” Stenzel said “We are now open 24/7, all the way through the summer, so you’re going to have the opportunity to come back many times.”

‘Food will win’

United Fresh chairman Michael Muzyk, president of New York-based Baldor Specialty Foods, spoke about the devastation the COVID-19 pandemic has caused but also reminded the audience that “food will win.” He recalled adjustments necessary for Baldor and the industry to keep doors open during the crisis, including marketing directly to consumers and expanding retail sales when restaurants were shuttered.

United Fresh has a responsibility to provide a platform for the industry to network, to educate and to communicate during the crisis.

“That (expo) platform had to be reinvented and that’s what today is all about,” Muzyk said. 

“Thank you for experiencing it with us.”

United Fresh LIVE! has the largest turnout of registered international attendees and exhibitors in the event’s history, he said.

Muzyk urged both exhibitors and buyers to make the most of the digital show.

“Today I need you (buyers) to walk down that virtual aisle with a badge of honor that says, as a retail customer, I helped keep the supply chain moving,” he said.

He said the year has brought challenges but the outlook for fresh produce is still strong.

“It’s been a privilege to help Tom and his team steer this ship through some tumultuous waters,” Muzyk said.

“I can’t tell you what the future looks like; I can’t tell you if restaurants are going to win, I can’t tell you if big box stores are going to win, if brick and mortar (stores) are going to win, if home delivery is going to win. I can tell you, food will win, and you’re on the winning team! I’m a winner. And we are going to win. Welcome to United fresh LIVE!”

Feeding America’s needs grow

Katie Fitzgerald, executive vice president and CEO for Feeding America, expressed appreciation to United Fresh members in partnering with food banks. 

“Growers, processors, distributors, retailers and so many others up and down the fresh produce supply chain have allowed us to together bring fresh fruits and vegetables to Americans struggling with hunger right now,” she said. 

“These partnerships have never been more important than they are today because millions of people’s lives and their livelihoods have been terribly disrupted.” 

Feeding America is a network of 200 food banks that last year distributed 4.5 billion meals to 40 million Americans. Fitzgerald said fresh produce made up about 30% of all food distributed last year.

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in unprecedented levels of demand at food banks, a decline in donations and the need to adjust food distribution systems as the number of volunteers at food banks declined sharply.

“Prior to the pandemic, 37 million Americans were estimated to be food insecure,” she said. 
“Today, we estimate there’re over 54 million people at risk for food insecurity in the United States.”

That is a 46% increase over pre-pandemic numbers and translates into one in every six Americans, Fitzgerald said.

Donations to Feeding’s America COVID-19 response fund so far have totaled $272 million, all of which has been devoted to distributing 1.3 billion meals since March 1, 40% over last year.

Feeding America thinks the economic recovery will be slow.

“We anticipate that our network could be facing an eight-billion-meal gap over the next 12 months,” Fitzgerald said. “We believe we are in a marathon, not a sprint.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program has been a welcome source of food, she said.

“Our members are currently on track to receive about 265 million incremental pounds of perishable products through this program, and we remain poised to take another 555 million pounds as more boxes become available,” she said.

Feeding America is seeking expanded funding for the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, expanded food stamp benefits and federal funding for cold storage needs of food banks.

“I believe with all my heart that we will continue to rise to this challenge,” Fitzgerald said. 

“And when we are on the other side of it, I hope we never forget how fragile a family’s economic situation can be, and that we continue to respond to anyone who finds themselves financially and food insecure with the same compassion with which we are responding today.”

Find the latest news from United Fresh LIVE! here.